Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the Notorious RBG from Brooklyn, as she came to be known, was a hero to millions and will always be. Although shy and of small physical stature, she rose to a level that is immortal and legendary. Thus, it came as quite a shock to learn of her passing from metastatic pancreatic cancer on September 18, 2020.
To her law clerks, she was known as “the justice,” and was known for being exceedingly fair with a “legendary work ethic.” To a colleague, she was “tough as nails,” with a fierce intellect and attitude.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a force on the Supreme Court for 27 years, though first diagnosed with cancer in 1999. In subsequent battles with reoccurring cancer, she rarely missed a day at Court. Right up to the end, at age 87, she continued to do her work.
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In her 80s, she became a cultural, feminist, and legal icon who earned a following from people of all ages. She fought tirelessly to ensure the Constitution represented everyone equally, a champion of justice for all. As a voice for gender equality since her first judicial appointment in 1980, she changed the world for women and minorities in America.
Her Final ‘Fervent Wish’
Days before she passed away, Ginsburg dictated a statement to her granddaughter, Clara Spencer:
“My most fervent wish is that I will not be replaced until a new president is installed.”
Ginsburg’s passing leaves no clear court majority, and she wished that the next president would decide her replacement.
Indeed, in 2019, shortly before former Justice John Paul Stevens passed away at age 99, she told him she wanted to serve on the Supreme Court as long as he did. Stevens served as a Justice until age 90 when he voluntarily retired in 2010.
In a 2019 interview, Ginsburg said:
“My dream is that I will stay on the court as long as he did.”
Stevens served 35 years on the Supreme Cout. Sadly, her dream was not to be.
On How Adversity Led Her to the Supreme Court
In a 2019 NPR interview, Nina Totenberg asked Ginsburg is she had any regret. She answered:
“I was born under a very bright star,” said Ginsburg.
She explained how her life circumstances led her to be nominated to the DC Circuit Court. That nomination led her to a spot on the Supreme Court. Notably, she and Justice Sandra Day O’Connor thought their lives might have turned out quite differently at another period in history. However, the adversity they faced as women guided them toward the nation’s highest court.
“So, I’ll tell you what Justice O’Connor once said to me. Suppose we had come of age at a time when women lawyers were welcome at the Bar. You know what, today we’d be retired partners from some law firm. But because that root was not open to us, we had to find another way. And, we both end up on the United States Supreme Court,” said Ginsburg.
O’Connor was the first woman appointed to the Supreme Court, and Ginsburg said she was “the closest I ever came to having a big sister.”
When Ginsburg graduated from Columbia Law School in 1959, she found it difficult to find a job. At the time, judges openly said she could not serve as a clerk because of her gender. To make matters worse, not a single New York City firm would hire her.
“I struck out on three grounds,” she said. “I was Jewish, a woman, and a mother. The first raised one eyebrow; the second, two; the third made me indubitably inadmissible,” she said.
Later as a Justice, she said:
“People ask me when would you be satisfied with the number of women on the Court? When there are nine,” she said.
See her talk about this below from NPR:
On What Attracted Her to Her Husband
Ginsburg enjoyed a loving, exemplary marriage to her life partner, tax attorney Martin “Marty” Ginsburg. Time called their relationship a “history-shaping marriage of equals” that lasted 56 years until his passing in 2010.
The couple met as undergraduates at Cornell University, where she encouraged Marty to enter the legal field with her. Later, she became the first tenured female professor at Columbia University and the first person to be a member of both the Harvard and Columbia Law Reviews.
What impressed her most about Marty was his intelligence. During an NPR interview in 2016, she said:
“I many times said that Marty Ginsburg was the first boy I met who cared that I had a brain,” she said.
Martin was so supportive of Ruth that he would ask her to work with him in a case of discrimination against a man. Together, they go on to win in the case of Moritz v. Commissioner in 1972.
Notably, the case was Ginsburg’s first big win and began her long fight for gender equality. It was also the first time a provision of the Internal Revenue Code was declared unconstitutional.
Later at Ginsburg’s Supreme Court confirmation hearing, Ginsburg gave her husband praise.
“I have had the great good fortune to share life with a partner truly extraordinary for his generation, a man who believed at age 18 when we met, and who believes today, that a woman’s work, whether at home or on the job, is as important as a man’s,” Ruth said.
On What Should Guide the Court
In 2018, the biopic movie, On the Basis of Sex, explored Ginsburg’s early legal career. While Martin was recovering from testicular cancer, Ginsburg attended his classes and hers at the same time. At one of his classes, she heard law professor Paul Freund say:
“The Court should never be influenced by the weather of the day, but inevitably they will be influenced by the climate of the era.”
Ginsburg repeated the line to her husband, who responds, “The law is never finished. It is a work in progress, and ever will be.”
In 2018, Ginsburg spoke at Roger Williams University School of Law. In the “fireside chat,” she spoke about what she believed made America great.
“Over the course of our history, the composition of ‘We the People’ has expanded,” Ginsburg said. “It now includes the people left out at the beginning. The idea of an embracive society that not simply tolerates but appreciates differences, I think, is what made our nation great.”
Later, she was asked which of the decisions she took part in had the biggest impact. She responded that 2015’s Obergefell v. Hodges decision, which made allowed same-sex marriage nationwide. She referred back to what she learned from Professor Freund while filling in for her husband at class so many years earlier.
“It’s another example of how society has changed, and the Court is catching up,” Ginsburg said. “The great constitutional scholar Paul Freund once said ‘the Court should never be influenced by the weather of the day, but inevitably they will be influenced by the climate of the era,’ and that’s what happened with the gay rights movement. People looked around and said, ‘That’s my next-door neighbor’ or ‘That’s my daughter’s best friend.’ There wasn’t that ‘we/they’ anymore.”
See more in the video from the New York Times below:
Featured image: Screenshots via YouTube